Relatively flat with a varied view of pretty medieval towns, chateaux, the winding Loire River and the neat rows of vineyards - with the wines and foods that go with them - the Loire is an ideal place for a chic and civilised cycling tour. The many B&Bs and hotels lining the route mean there's no need to give up on any of your creature comforts, yet you'll appreciate the pedalling you'll have done in the day when it comes time for dinner and you find that the only restaurant in the town you're staying in has a couple of Michelin stars.
This itinerary travels west to east along the most popular region of the Loire: chateaux central, between Tours and Blois via Chenonceaux and Chambord. It's about 145kms worth of riding to cover, which most people will find quite comfortable on the paved, flat back roads, and should leave plenty of time to make the most of the sights you're passing.
Getting to Tours to start should be easy enough, you can catch a train down from Paris with your bike in one piece. You can also hire a bike locally if you need to.
From Tours it's about a 30km cycle to Château Chenonceaux, with its famous bridge with many arches crossing the River Cher: one of the enduring images of the Loire Valley, and rounded Gothic towers and early Renaissance arched windows. Chenonceaux also has a lovely view of the river from the graceful gardens. The route via Greux, Véretz and Bleré passes along some of the prettiest back roads, though there is a main road to follow if you're worried about your map reading skills.
From Chenonceaux cycle 12kms to Amboise to see another lovely château, this one is reputed to be the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo came as a guest King Francis I in December 1515, and lived and worked in the nearby Clos Lucé, which is connected to the château by an underground passage.
Amboise has a nice campsite, as well as several nice hotels and restaurants.
From Amboise cycle on to Chaumont for the viaduct and the château which is largely medieval, with a hint of Renaissance. Catherine de Medici, the castle's most famous owner, bought it in 1560, and several famous figures have stayed here, from Nostradamus to Benjamin Franklin. It's now open as a museum. From there it's on to Blois, which is around 36kms from today's starting point.
As you near Blois the terrain becomes more varied - there are even hills - which means the town of Blois, sitting on one of these hills, has a nice view as well as being rather charming, with some nice shops and restaurants.
Take a morning off your bike to visit the Château de Blois, where Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before she set out with her army to fight the British in Orleans. It's also been the home of several kings and a favourite palace of King Louis XII. By the time the Revolution came around the Gothic palace hadn't been refurbished for more than 130 years – so though it was looking a bit shabby it was still a target for demolition as a royal favourite. But it was saved by its location close to the centre of town, and the way it was constructed around a central courtyard – features that made it very suitable for use as a military barracks. It was still ransacked though, so the insides are accumulated museum pieces rather than a genuine inventory.
After seeing inside the chateau, ride the 14kms to Cheverny which also has a château, this one looks like a full size doll house in white, with grey sloping roofs and plenty of large windows in perfect symmetry. It was built by Henri Hurault, Comte de Cheverny, but he lost it to the crown, though a generation later his son brought it back from the King's mistress. The family was forced to sell up again during the Revolution, but again managed to buy it back twenty years later during the Restoration.
Château de Cheverny has been open to the public since 1914, and was one of the first chateaux to do so, more proof of how important it is for the family to hold on to it despite the modern costs of keeping a chateau – they still own it today.
The collection of interior decorations are as much gallery or museum pieces as they are family furniture – there's tapestries, the kinds of chairs and tables with little golden feet on them, and many objets d'art. If it looks familiar it could be because Tintin's Marlinspike Hall is a direct copy.
From Cheverny, the Château de Chambord is 17kms cycling distance. Spectacularly detailed on the outside, with rounded towers and turrets, lots of large windows and roofs in places rounded and in places sharp it takes a photo to properly describe it. Francis I built it after coming back from Milan, so it's 'French Renaissance': the marriage of 'Italian Renaissance' and 'French Medieval', built around and Italian square keep with a beautiful French spiral staircase – rumoured to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci - and flanked by French medieval bastion towers.
Chambord is the largest of the Loire Valley castles with 440 rooms, 84 staircases and 365 fireplaces, whose chimneys help provide for the fascinating design of the castle's rooftop.
It would be nice to be able to say that you'd cycled the Tour de France, but it would be a lot nicer to spend a week cycling the Loire Valley, stopping off at the vineyards you pass for a tipple, sleeping in comfortable rooms in pretty medieval towns etc.
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